Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Self-Help Faith

In one of my favorite Jay Leno Jaywalking sketches he asks random people if they can recite one of the Ten Commandments. A particularly popular answer seems to be, "God helps those who help themselves." In fact, according to pollster George Barna, 75% of Amercans (Canadians seem graciously exempted) believe the Bible teaches something like this.

Of course, that's nonsense. The Bible teaches that God helps those who can't help themselves. This is called "grace," and it is the scandal of Christianity. "God helps those who help themselves," on the other hand, is actually a bit of Greek self-help advice popularized by that agnostic saint, Benjamin Franklin.

Ironically, majoring in good advice about all sorts of problems and challenges on the path to success seems to be one of the most popular goals of Evangelicalism of late.

            You will see what I mean, I think, if you visit the Christian section of your local bookstore. A lot of it looks like the self-help section of the bookstore, baptized. If you go, you may find books like, Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week, by Joel Osteen: or God Wants You to Be Rich—The Christian Guide to Financial Freedom & Unlimited Health (12 Steps to Bring More Money Into Your Life While Still Serving the Lord), by Alex Landon; or perenial favorite, Nine Promises of a Promise Keeper, which explains how to be a real Christian man. Then there is The Dieter's Prayer Book: Spiritual Power and Daily Encouragement by Helen Kopp, for those of us who need a bit of spiritual rigor to loose some pounds; and my favorite--if a bit outdated example--Robert Schuller's The Be Happy Attitudes, which he is probably rereading himself now that he’s gone bankrupt and lost his Chrystal Cathedral.

            Do you get the picture from this tiny but typical sampling? Judging by such titles, evangelicals seem more concerned with what to do and how to do it to succeed than in what has been done--what we call the gospel.

The truth is, Christianity, and the Evangelical branch in particular, is in danger of trading the good news for a kind of works-righteous bondage to good advice. These books remind me of the kind of sermon that turns every Old Testament hero into an object lesson for how to live the Christian life--rather than a lesson in how God accomplishes his will no matter how crooked his humans on the ground are. This self-help spirituality, rooted in American pragmatism and a kind of "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" faith focuses on numbered lists of "to do's," on strategies, steps, bulleted principles, and programs. It cares more for how to get things done than on what has been done for us; focuses more on success than on sacrifice; more on the cash value of religion than on humble service that asks for nothing but opportunity to love God and neighbor.

In the end it is a matter of balance. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died and rose for sinners. That’s all of us. The practical result of his sacrificial love should probably be that I try to pick up my own cross and follow him. I don’t doubt that along the way some of us might find worldly success carrying our crosses. But what Jesus really wants us to discover is the sort of divine gratitude that inspires us spend our lives loving God and neighbor.

1 comment:

  1. Darrell Johnson, one of my preaching professors at Regent College, repeatedly told us not to confuse preaching the Good News with preaching good advice. The latter is sometimes helpful (though you've found popular examples where it's not good advice at all!), but people won't truly live without the former. ~Stan


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